- A deceptively simple church with hidden depths
- Beautiful exterior stonework
- A fine, tall tower and a well-built porch
- A plain interior with rustic pews
- An excellent 20th century East Window
- A pulpit made up from old medieval woodwork
- A very nice Norman font
Churchstow Church of St Mary
Most of the roads leading to Churchstow church rise so gradually that its positioning on top of the world is a shock; this church is high above the landscape, rolling hills emerging from the wooded valley depths to lap at its feet.
Suddenly, standing proud with its tall tower and weather-beaten stone, clouds scudding and winds whistling, shadows across the countryside below bringing life and movement, it is a tall sailing ship about to cast off for lands afar.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
Sea-Fever, John Masefield
To see the sunrise and sunset from this tower, and a clear full moon, over the hills and down to the sea, and to throw loose the mooring ropes of our imaginations, a magic beyond compare.
An ancient church
It is an ancient place too, at the meeting of many roads, a stream running down to the estuary at Kingsbridge, which used to be part of this parish, and a name that comes from Cyricstow, Saxon meaning ‘church in the holy place’, the suffix ‘stow’ usually used to denote a pre-Saxon sacred place, an earlier Christian site.
The church now is mostly fourteenth and fifteenth century, a gentle beauty still misting the stones, an interior stripped down to its core elegance.
This present version would have started life cross shaped, with a north and south transept sticking out either side of the nave. Later the south aisle (nearest to us) and porch were added, with the aisle having a chapel at eastern end running up to the end of the chancel, thus the flat eastern end. The tower? Maybe original, maybe the same time as the aisle.
The original north transept still has the delicious fourteenth century window, modest and weathered and a total darling.
And sticking with the north transept, the north wall has this fifteenth century beauty, somewhat repaired but still giving off strong ancient vibes, with a more complex design that the previous window.
An extra delight of these is that the ground is high here, we can look at them horizontally, always a good position to get their full power.
The tall tower and porch
The tower is a very fine South Hams (as this area is called) type, strongly associated with this area.
The grey slate stone, almost black after rain, the outside stairs climbing high on the south face, the clasping buttresses teaching almost to the top, and that awesome height with very little interruption except for stone and more stone.In another world it would be Brutalist, here just another little spot of awesomeness in the grand tale of Devon’s churches.
And the two storey porch is a good one too.
The porch entrance
Especially with a fine entrance of granite as it has, very, very posh for its time and a style on many a manor house built around then. The porch and south aisle were added using the best and it shows.
Inside Churchstow Church of St Mary
Admittedly on my first visit here I was a little underwhelmed by the church, probably because it is in the midst of a huddle of lushly roof bossed and rood screened brothers and sisters, anciently benched and monumented.
This has none of those, just gorgeous light, simple whites and browns, granite and the occasional splash of stained glass. It took a look or two to unlock its beauty, first impressions are so dangerous, but I got there in the end.
Even the pews, eighteenth or nineteenth century rustic, are very nice indeed as a set, along with the play of lines and angles they offer and those pillars pouring down from those elegant arches.
The roof and walls
And the roof, simple again, difficult to date, but in the medieval style for sure, and still with the plaster between the ribs and purlins.
And here is a thing. The listed building guide says:
A good church with little C19 modification
And there is a lot of truth in that. The Victorian folk did a lot of good in saving and restoring our churches down here, especially after over a century of near neglect, and anybody who knows these building knows how they can go from watertight to duck pond in a short quack or two…
But they did like plaster stripping, they really oh so very did like plaster stripping. Maybe they thought medieval churches were all bare stone, or maybe they just had a thing for it, and when we visit a church with a bare stone interior then thinking, ‘Victorian strippers’ is a fine idea.
Here though this has not happened, roofs and walls still plastered and the good stone, the proper stone, left bare as it was. This precious stone, granite or otherwise, was like the chroming on a good ‘50s American car (mine is a 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz Convertible, ta very much), not something to cover up.
There is a lack of medieval colour here for sure, no wall painting, minimal stained glass, but we can see a properly plastered church creating a beautiful space of dancing light.
The gorgeous East Window
Full of beautiful imagery and symbolism too, well worth a closer look.
Scenes from the Passion of Christ surround the central figure, scenes which convey the exhaustion and pain and suffering until the Resurrection in the bottom right.
But not a triumphalist Resurrection here, a gentle one, a humble one, which is as it should be; Christ taught by humility, not power, and here the cross has turned into a Tree of Life, the soldier is gently sleeping and Jesus is wandering out to reveal his Godhood… again.
Folk had been a little slow in picking up this news, that was true, but I am pretty sure the modern world would have been no quicker.
Christ in his glory
And here is the resurrected Christ on his throne, a stylish bit of woodwork too, with a crossbeam (see first image) to reflect the cross, and holding a communion chalice with a sacred wafer. Here is offering the Eucharist to the congregation, above the altar where the priest does the same.
Moving face too, full of compassion.
A Pelican in her PIety
And below Christ is the Pelican in her Piety (I go into this in more depth here), which has long been a symbol for Christ as the Pelican was thought to feed her from the blood of her chest, pecking at it until it bled, as Christ sacrificed his blood for us, so the thinking went.
The Virgin Mary and St John in stained glass
There is a more traditional sweetie further down the nave with St John the Evangelist and the Virgin Mary, John being given the task of looking after Mary by Jesus during the crucifixion.
Mary is holding one of her symbols, a white lily, for purity, and John is holding a goblet with a snake in it. There was a legend that a pagan priest challenged the lad to drink a cup of poison, which he did and thrived; the snake indicates poison.
It is an interesting pose of John here too; a direct, questioning stare at the viewer and pointing to the goblet as if to ask, ‘are you too prepared to die for the Divine?’.
The pulpit and the font
The pulpit is a nice touch, partly made from sixteenth century carved panels, maybe a screen or bench ends.
A fine Norman font
And then there is this, a stately Norman font on a Victorian base; such a simple design but such power and elegance, with such subtle shades of shadowy colours.
Arcades along the side, pillars and arches, gateways to a New Jerusalem and reflecting the structure of a true church, to stand for the home that the newly baptised joins.
Why yes, objects can have more than one meaning, and never forgetting that this is a font, the place of one of the most sacred sacraments, baptism.
Through this rite the Original Sin of Adam was washed away, and the true meaning of sin is important; it was not something to berate folk with, oh you naughty, naughty person, sin was understood as an action that takes us away from the Divine and Adam, well, that is what he did, distance himself from God.
Of course he blamed Eve, and God for creating Eve, and Eve blamed the serpent, and the lack of personal responsibility was most human, always so sadly so, and baptism gave an entrance (those gateways again) back to the Divine.
Babies were baptised as young as they could be, within eight days of birth usually, and the rite was so formidably crucial that midwives were taught the essential shorthand elements of the ceremony so they could perform it immediately after, or even during, birth if survival seemed dicey.
And no wonder so many churches kept their first font, sending such a strong message about the awe of this profound ritual stretching back to the first in their own church and, on ever deeper, to the Baptism of Jesus in the waters of the River Jordan.
The Lord who, just to clear up any possible confusion,
… was baptised, not to be cleansed himself but to cleanse the water, so that those waters, cleansed by the flesh of Christ which knew no sin, might have the power of Baptism
St Ambrose of Milan
There is a stripped down beauty in this church on a hill, sails set to drift across the skies sprinkling holiness on the good folks below, where wonders come alive with light and shadows and where we need to actively seek out beauty and awe.
Because after all, for some of many of us, visiting these exquisite buildings is a process of discovery, not an entertainment (though it is delightfully that as well). And without going Sweet Miss Virginia all over the place, exploring new ways of looking, new ways of perceiving, to find wonder in all…
That sure is the kind of marvellous I can sign up to.